Saturday 23 August 2014

History and Bigotry, by Leslie Wilson

Paul von Hindenburg, one of the two generals
commanding German troops on 23rd August
1914 at Allenstein

A hundred years ago today was the start of the battle of Tannenberg. It was fought at Allenstein,(Polish Olsztyn), in what was then East Prussia, which is actually 30km away from Tannenberg but in the fifteenth-century battle of Tannenberg, the Teutonic Knights were defeated by the Kingdom of Poland and the Duchy of Lithuania, and this battle was renamed in order to wipe out what was seen as shame.

In the 20th-century Battle of Tannenberg, the Second Russian Army was annihilated, and the subsequent Battle of the Masurian Lakes consolidated that defeat. It was also notable for being a battle in which trains were used to transport corps of German soldiers about; the Russians could not use railways, because their trains used a different gauge from German rolling stock. So technology entered the war.
I should be very surprised to read any mention of this in any of the papers today, or read that it would appear on any of the commemorative broadcasts, though it was strategically so important, and the human cost was so enormous (78,000 Russians killed or wounded, 12,000 Germans. 92,000 Russian soldiers became prisoners of war. The Russian general shot himself.) I have been looking at the schedules and not one that I have seen (readers of this blog are very welcome to point out anything I have not noticed) has dealt with the German experience of World War 1, though there have been many which have dealt with hitherto unnoticed contributors or combatants. But these are all on 'our side.'
I find this deeply depressing. I fear it only reinforces the old jingoistic stereotyping which has made the war something to be celebrated, (particularly by our current Prime Minister) as a war 'we' were right to fight, which validates current and future wars. It makes me think of the memorial I saw in a church in Dorset, which bore the quotation from the Bible: 'He who loses his life for my sake shall gain it.' The radical rabbi Jesus, who said: 'Love your enemy', would surely have been appalled by the suggestion that the mass killing of WW1 was done for his sake.
I would love to see the British exploring the German and Austrian experience of the war, while the Germans and Austrians look at what it was like for the British, the French and the Russians (and all the other combatants). This might begin to change people's mindsets and perhaps ward off further wars, with all the death and misery they involve.
In contrast to the Dorset memorial however, what I have seen on many visits to Germany is the transformation of war memorials, originally erected to glorify 19th-century military victories, into what is called a 'Mahnmal' or a warning memorial, complete with an inscription pointing out the evil of waging aggressive war. Clearly, this is a reaction to the glorification of war in Nazi Germany, and the murderous bellicosity of Adolf Hitler (he was furious after the Munich agreement, for 'peace in our time' was absolutely not what he wanted).
Mahnmal in the Luebbener Hain National
Park in Brandenburg. The plate reads:
Millions of victims of two world wars
call for peace.
Photo: J-H Janssen
However, in spite of all the work that has been done, I was horrified to see that there was an arson attack on a synagogue in Wuppertal this July (the old Wuppertal synagogue was burned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938). The attack, and the hostile anti-semitism which German Jews are now suffering, is thought to be the work of Muslims (FREE PALESTINE was daubed on the walls), but nevertheless there seems to be a resurgence of anti-semitism among other Germans. Part of this may be the legacy of the Communist state, which dismissed the Holocaust as the work of 'the fascists' and thus never engaged with it, as eventually happened in the West. Be that as it may, Jews are being attacked and insulted again in Germany - but not only there, or even chiefly there. It is happening all over Europe and also in Britain.

Clearly, in an atmosphere where racism is becoming respectable again, prejudice against Jews will arise, as well as against Muslims, other Asians, Afro-Caribbean people, Eastern Europeans, and so on. But there is an anti-semitism that is not confined to extreme right-wingers; it can be heard among members of the liberal left.
It is 'justified' by the actions of the state of Israel in Gaza. Israel, according to this narrative, is a gigantic bully, supported by America, powerful, nuclear-armed, aggressive and murderous, and comparisons are even made with Nazi Germany. There is an assumption that all Jews, wherever they are, support all Israel's actions, or are responsible for them. Karl Sabbagh, replying in the Guardian letters page to Jon Henley's account of anti-semitism in Europe, says that since Israel describes itself as 'the Jewish state', 'Jews can hardly complain that the actions of the self-identified Jewish state are sometimes criticised as Jewish actions.'
Photo: Doronef via Wikimedia Commons

Leaving aside the crashing lapse of logic in this statement, it does typify this kind of anti-semitism. Jews, according to this argument, have no right to their own individual views and opinions; they must be judged by the actions of the Israeli government. So the Jew you see in the local supermarket is made responsible for the deaths of children in Gaza. And this kind of hostile (and simplistic) assumption is being made by people who condemn other forms of racism. Yet I know that many Jews (including Israeli citizens) are appalled by the bombardment of Gaza and have wanted ja just peace with Palestinians for years and years. 

What is needed here is a sense of history (though what I have been talking about is the last unrolling of a dismal historical scroll), for that image of Israel is itself a monstrous, deceptive construct of self-righteous prejudice. I know that many people (including some who write to the letters page of the Guardian) may dismiss what I am going to say as specious, yet it is not.
pogrom, Bialystock, 1906, by Henry Nowodworski

Zionism began as a result of the pogroms in Russia and the Dreyfus case, at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries; the state of Israel was created in the aftermath of the Holocaust and a war that was emphatically not fought for the Jews. The British, for example, were reluctant to take in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany (though most people believe otherwise) and though I was always told how horrified Britons were by the documentary about Belsen, I watched that documentary through, at the Imperial War Museum, and at no point in the commentary was it stated that the dead and dying people in the camp were mainly Jews. Anne Karpf writes extensively about this blanking-out of the Holocaust, post-war, in The War After. And no sooner was the war over than Mosley and his fascists were out on the streets of London, attacking London's Jews (many of them ex-servicemen) while the police turned away and did nothing.
Furthermore, the Nazis found eager accomplices in most of the countries they invaded; France, Hungary, Romania, Latvia, the Ukraine spring to mind. It is that historical indifference or murderous hostility that fires Israel's determination to defend herself. And as soon as Israel came into existence, its neighbours declared war on it, and many of them are still determined to wipe it out. To be an Israeli has been, from the outset, to be the object of attack, and it helps nobody to dismiss that fact.
This is not to deny the historic and present suffering of Palestinians. For what my personal opinion, as an outsider, is worth, I wish all success to the enormously courageous organisations which have spent years working to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Some of these have been set up by people who have lost loved ones in the conflict, and are still prepared to enter into dialogue with their counterparts on the other side. We hear little about these initiatives in the newspapers, just as, during the Northern Ireland conflict, the media told us little about the work of groups and individuals, without which the peace process would have stood little chance.
Daniel Barenboim wrote movingly in the Guardian last month: 'Only through trying to understand the other side’s plight can we take a step towards each other.' Those of us who stand outside the Middle Eastern conflict should surely consider the plight of Israelis as well as Palestinians, and Barenboim's words also apply to the WW1 commemorations, for the heirs of the conflict should surely do all they can to learn about and understand the plight of all participants in that horrific tragedy.


Miriam Halahmy said...

A brave and honest post Leslie for which I thank you. As a British born Jew who advocates peace and actively engages in peace projects across this conflict, I have found myself attacked and belittled on social media, my sources ridiculed because they do not fit the current PC paradigm and for the first time in my life, I feel seriously unsafe in this country. I also run peace events in Germany and Paris which are also becoming unsafe. My greatest concern is the reduction of the conflict to an easy to explain, black and white issue and if you try to argue from a different view point you are drowned out. Well, I am anyway. I never put up inflammatory links which would give a different view - I would be shot down, people don't want to entertain the thought that 'their side' might actually not be as righteous as they believe. I will continue my work for peace with the young people of the UK and the Continent.But I am currently disengaged from social media and when I return next month will not engage politically with the pointless rhetoric again. Once again, great post and thank you.

Unknown said...

Very good and sensible post and the kind of thing we need to hear more of in the current climate. The media, particularly television, is responsible for inflaming the issues and for the safety and welfare of all the citizens of this country the history of Israel and problems of the Middle East have to be presented within the historic context. This country is very hypocritical in the way it righteously declares Holocaust Memorial day yet downgrades the current wave of anti-semitism linked to Israel. The Jewish population have given an enormous amount to this country over the years and that should be honoured.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks for saying this so eloquently, Leslie.